21 May 2019

The Collide-o-scope of Philanthropy: Old Patterns shifting to meet new Challenges

So, just young enough to still be able to count the candles on the cake, but old enough to be slightly embarrassed about the “surprise party” planned. Happy birthday, bon anniversaire, lá breithe shona duit EFC!

Birthdays are great times for recollection, with even the slightly tipsy grand aunt in the corner contributing some remark that would be better left unsaid. Well I am old enough to recall the AGA of 2001. The one hosted in the beautiful city of Stockholm that marked the scene of the “great hand-over”. Not quite spy-exchange at dawn, but very close to it. The grand old men of philanthropy (and yes, they were all men) had birthed the original EFC over a good port. It was a far-sighted endeavour in a world still celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Philanthropy had an established part to play in a world where “the end of history” was trumpeted. It was simply a matter of oiling the wheels of progress and democracy.

But there was another side to the rather self-congratulatory Stockholm gathering that went largely unrecognised. Meagrely-endowed community foundations, tentative eastern European citizens’ initiatives, philanthropy that spoke in terms of inclusion, participation and rights struggled to find a place on an already crowded agenda. Money still talked in carefully modulated tones; all too often gracious but cautious. The more belligerent outsiders muttered about the feudal warlords of philanthropy, while slipping readily into tugging the forelock or acting the courtier.

Of course money is still influence and power, perhaps it always will be, and philanthropy, when all is said and done, is largely about money. But the EFC has grown up and out, maturing into a much more dynamic and complex organisation. There are thematic groups on diversity and countering racism. There are spin-off funder collaboratives. There is an increasing willingness to hold up the mirror of critical reflection to philanthropy itself. There is recognition that the intentional exercise of philanthropy is more of an art than a science no matter what the well-connected Stanford gurus try to tell us. There is an ever-growing appreciation of the myriad traditions of a philanthropy made in Europe rather than America – although arguably this is still tentative.

The direction of travel

If the EFC has come far from the original heady vision of its gregarious and ever enthusiastic founding fathers, there is still a distance to be travelled. High rolling philanthropy still has its comfort zones and its nod-and-wink politics. If one well-endowed funder or donor speaks the word “resilience” then that becomes the word on the block. If “impact” philanthropy or “strategic” philanthropy becomes the new “must have” fashion, then everyone nods knowingly. This is not to deny the importance of innovation or learning, but there is still a danger that the field is influenced by who champions what, rather than focusing on values and vision.

Arguably there has never been more of a need for clear values that speak to people who may feel left behind and marginalised than in our current period. The challenges that face us are coming into ever sharper focus. Europe has both an impressive and a complex historical legacy. From democracy to totalitarianism; an advocate of human rights but profiting from colonial arrogance; there was good reason that the founding vision of the European Community (that neither Putin nor Trump warm to) was post World War II “never again”. Yet, Ece Temelkuran has recently published “How to Lose a Country: Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship” (2019) – Is this the backdrop to current European philanthropy? The question that keeps me awake at night is if I had control of major philanthropic resources in 1930, and was blessed with the benefit of hindsight, what would I have done differently? Perhaps this is a question that the EFC can encourage funders to ponder.


If European philanthropy is to lead by example it needs to address growing xenophobia (specifically Islamophobia and anti-Semitism) and popular alienation. Recent research commissioned by The Social Change Initiative highlights the cultural, political and economic fault lines in Germany, France, Italy, Greece and Ireland that place refugees and migrants as the nemesis of the public. The appalling treatment of George Soros and the Open Society Foundations in Hungary is more than a canary in the coalmine, reminding us of how quickly political developments can outpace carefully commissioned research, analysis and deliberation. The work of activist-research organisations such as Hope Not Hate in the UK, need to be resourced to track right-wing extremism, while an infrastructure of value-driven community organising needs to work with alienated communities to build progressive solidarity.

Looking Outwards

Equally, however, European philanthropy cannot confine itself to the continent of Europe (and in fairness, many don’t). Our continent has grown rich on the plundered resources of much of the rest of the world for centuries. All too often European arrogance in drawing boundaries and imposing its concept of state-building seeded both past and current conflicts in “developing countries” and fostered environmental degradation. Voilà – in part – the refugee and migration issue; although while “they” are migrants, Western Europeans are “ex-pats”. Even our words have become weaponised. For its part philanthropy is often caught in the uncomfortable position of balancing between an over-weening guilt that wallows in unquestioning cultural relativism and a “white saviour” mentality that fails to listen to the voices of the global South. Inclusion, participation and local agency, however, are not optional extras if there is any real chance of achieving a responsive balance. These elements are essential in mapping the direction of travel; if the personal is political, so too is the local.

The EFC should keep at least one candle alight on its birthday cake to send out a welcome for not only those more edgy philanthropic actors, but also for experimental philanthropic initiatives and endeavours as we move forward into an uncertain future. As the playwright, Eugene Ionesco, suggests: “The problem is not the answer, it is the question”: the EFC is well-placed to pose difficult and uncomfortable questions of philanthropy, from a position of understanding context and quandaries, as well as giving house room to others who question. At 30, it has earned itself the right to be more than a servant of its donors; it has an institutional memory and a network of connections of its own that are an important resource. It also has the ability to be inter-sectoral, facilitating alliance-building and shared learning across specific interests and specialisms. But best of all, it is still of an age to be enthusiastic and optimistic about the change that is possible.

And in all this, to paraphrase an Irish blessing, “Go n-éirigh an bóthar leat” – “May the road rise with you”!


Avila Kilmurray

Consultant, The Social Change Initiative